In Beyond Retelling: Toward Higher Level Thinking and Big Ideas by Cunningham and Smith (2008) Pearson Education, the authors lay out a carefully sequenced approach to reading comprehension

Reasons: What is/are the purposes of the dialogue?

The authors begin by justifying the focus on Higher Order Thinking (more specifically the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Evaluation, Analysis, Synthesis and Application). They point of how important those skills are for today’s world, how often they are related to successful reading instruction, and how frequently they are the focus of everyday instruction.

One of their areas of focus relative to “reasons” for their higher order thinking approach is the impact of such an approach on students in high poverty classrooms. Citing two studies from the 1990’s, the note that the teachers with the highest achievement gains did the following:

From the first study by Michael Knapp:

*Maximized opportunities to read

*Integrated reading and writing with other subjects

*Provided opportunities to discuss what was read (emphasis mine)

*Emphasized higher order meaning construction rather than lower order skills

From the second study by Taylor and Pearson (CIERA):

*Had higher pupil engagement

*Provided more small group instruction

*Provided more coaching to help children improve their work recognition

*Communicated more with parents

*Had children engage in more independent reading

*Asked more higher level comprehension questions

Although they support the importance of asking more higher level questions, they note that “leading the children to come up with good answers in much harder (p. 6);” thus the importance of thoughtful planning and carefully scaffolding of instruction. At the end of each section, Cunningham and Smith lay out a multi-step procedure for maximizing student participation and success.

The approach is based on engaging elementary school children in big questions, big ideas and deep thinking that are actualized through focusing on narrative themes like problem solving, courage, friendship, overcoming hardships.

These teachers’ uses several techniques to careful scaffolding is the way in which they help children progress through reading tasks. These might be thought of as interacting “routines” that children learn to follow. That is, they learn what how they are expected to work and communicate during each phase of the lesson.

Routines: Dialogue entails multiple “turns” among participants. What kinds of “turns” are there? How do participants determine whose “turn” it is and what kind of contribution is appropriate? Meaningful? Helpful? How are the routines influenced by Reasons, Rules and Roles?

  1. Simple Formats

They use two simple formats to take children though a single story and across multiple stories: A Concept Chart based on Frayer’s model of vocabulary instruction and a Thinking Theme chart that asks students to address a theme-based Big Question by identifying Events or Actions, determine Why a character asked in a certain way, determining what the character Gets for acting that way and providing support for how the event shows the focus theme.

Roles: Who are the participants in the dialogue and how, in the particular context, are they related to each/one another?

  1.  Reading tasks.

They start with read alouds, engages children in partner reading, reading teams (with a coach and recorder on each team to complete the charts). Further along the line, the teacher creates a “three-ring circle” in which children either read with the teacher, with a partner, or alone. The authors note that their planning is strongly influenced by the “Gradual Release of Responsibility” framework. They move from shared reading, to guided reading, to reading partnerships, to conferring with reading partnerships, and finally to independent reading and literature circles (See Chapter 7)

  1. Multiple examples

The teacher starts by having children draw examples from their own lives and then offers children several examples of the target theme, before they even begin reading. Then children will be focused on identifying examples as they read, stopping at predetermined (sticky notes) places.

  1. Moving from Nonfiction to Fiction  (See Chapter 6)

Rules: Is there a set of “rules” that participants follow. Are the rules implicit or explicit? If implicit, are all of the participants aware of the rules? Do they all agree to the rules?

A hallmark of the Cunningham and Smith model is that children are explicitly taught what the expectations are. They are not simply told what to do; it is described, and practiced and evaluated, with the children as full partners.

Rewards: Can dialogue really achieve the desired/specified

I am stretching this part of the framework to fit my focus on dialogue and reading, but I think the stretch is justified. This approach doesn’t work without paying attention to dialogue. In a sense, the heart of the approach is “stop-think-talk.” For every part of the lessons and the sequences, talk is essential. The talk comes from the children’s experiences before, during, and after reading.   It builds on their prior knowledge and experiences. It is inherent in their evaluation of their tasks. But it also comes from the careful sequencing of instruction. These children know about the kinds of talk, the timing of talk, the importance of talk, and the outcome of “talking” because their teachers have taken on the task of “leading the children to come up with good answers in much harder.” And “talking” is inherently related to higher order thinking.

This book has much to offer elementary teachers. It is well worth investing the time to read and try out the ideas. I would also recommend it to parts as an example of carefully sequenced, explicit instruction in reading comprehension